U.S.-trained unit helps stem flow of Central American children at the source

  • Article by: CINDY CARCAMO , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: July 12, 2014 - 6:13 PM

Honduran police try to stop “little angels” from making dangerous journey to U.S.

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Special agent Gessler Flores Colindres, right, gently talked to a child at a checkpoint on a highway near Ocotepeque, Honduras, a few miles from the Guatemala border earlier this month.

Photo: Photos by Don Bartletti • Los Angeles Times,

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– Empty energy drinks and rusted baby formula cans litter the moss-covered banks of the Lempa River near this country’s northern border, marking the trails where, until recently, migrants — some of them children — made their way into Guatemala on a treacherous journey to the United States.

Today, though, the trails are quiet except for the squawking cacophony of birds.

An elite unit of the Honduran national police, trained and funded by the United States, is making its presence felt along the border in a mission to slow down the migrant flow at its source. The team, which usually focuses on drug and arms interdiction, was deployed just as Americans awoke to a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied minors streaming into the United States from Central America.

“We are saving the lives of our country’s children,” said Noel Hernandez, a first lieutenant with the unit, the Honduran Special Tactical Operations Group.

About two weeks ago, the team arrived in the verdant border town around Aguas Calientes to serve as the first line of defense in a program dubbed Operation Rescue Angels, according to Commissioner Miguel Martinez Madrid, a Honduran liaison to the U.S. Embassy in ­Tegucigalpa and coordinator of the special unit.

“These are little angels. They are not conscious of the risks they are taking. We are doing something good,” said Martinez Madrid, the father of two young daughters. “These are our children. They are the future of our country.”

According to the national police, the team is primarily funded by the U.S. State Department and was trained by a U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC. The team’s aim in this operation is to stop the flow not just of unaccompanied minors, but of children who head north illegally with only one parent.

On a recent afternoon, the agents set up a checkpoint where a major highway splits toward two separate border crossings just south of the town of Ocotepeque.

Covered with bullet-resistant vests emblazoned with “Police” and badges that read “BORTAC,” the agents waved down a late-morning bus bound for Guatemala.

Among the passengers was Ana Maria Ramos, who sighed when the unit pulled her off for questioning. She tried to keep her 2-year-old son from wandering away as she answered questions about where they were going.

She said they were bound for Los Angeles in an attempt to flee gang violence and crushing poverty back home in San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras. The homicide rate there, the highest in the country, has led to it sometimes being called the murder capital of the world.

“I don’t want my boy to grow up in such a violent environment. I don’t want him to see the violence and learn it. I don’t want this for my son,” she said.

She cradled the boy and explained to the agents that although she didn’t have his father’s written authorization to leave the country, he had given his consent.

Martinez Madrid nodded but said he couldn’t let her go.

“If you are going to leave the country, you must do it legally,” he told her. The unit then took the two to lunch at a diner before handing them over to child welfare authorities in Ocotepeque.

Unprecedented surge

Under the law in Honduras, as in many countries, children cannot leave without authorization from both parents. A parent attempting to leave the country with a child must have a notarized document from the absent parent authorizing the trip for the child. The child must also have a valid Honduran passport.

Unaccompanied children from Honduras and throughout Mexico and Central America, often fleeing gang violence and hoping to reunite with parents in the United States, have been entering the U.S. through the Southwest border for years. But an unprecedented surge in the last few months overloaded Border Patrol stations and detention facilities in Texas.

  • related content

  • This Guatemala-bound bus was stopped on a highway near Ocotepeque. Minors on board were carefully screened to thwart the illegal exodus of children bound for the United States.

  • At dawn on July 4, 2014, a member of an elite team of Honduran national police boards a bus bound for Guatemala. At this impromptu checkpoint on a highway near Ocotepeque, Honduras, he and his team are looking for children bound for nearby Guatemala and eventually the U.S. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

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